Ancient History & Civilisation



The Thracian was practically at the gates. His slaves and gladiators had already reached the Appian Way, and a march of 50 miles would bring them to Venusia (modern Venosa). An ancient city planted in the shadow of an extinct volcano, majestic Mount Vultur (modern Vulture), Venusia had been a Roman colony for 200 years. Now, in spring 71 BC, it would have been well advised to firm up its walls. Surely raiding parties had already looted outlying farms.

And raids were perhaps the least of it. People were saying this of the rebels: ‘they indiscriminately mix murder, arson, theft and rape.’ They took Roman citizens prisoner. One Roman matron was supposed even to have killed herself in torment over the violation of her sexual honour. Venusians could imagine worse still, based on recent experience. After joining the rebels against Rome in the Social War, Venusia had been stormed and recaptured by a Roman army in 88 BC.

One of the inhabitants of Venusia in 71 BC was a freedman named Horatius. Although an ex-slave, he was unlikely to have sympathized with Spartacus, because Horatius represented a success story. If the ancient biographical tradition can be trusted, he had started out selling salted fish: the kind of petty retailer who, in Cicero’s opinion, could turn a profit only by making a habit of lying. Currently, however, he was an auction broker, a profession that made up in profitability what it lacked in prestige. The prosperous freedman might have feared Spartacus as much as any blueblood did.

But Horatius need not have worried. Spartacus’s rabble in arms would not disrupt his road to success. If not then in 71 BC, then soon Horatius would own a farm as well as a townhouse. Six years later, in 65 BC, his wife (her name is not recorded) would give birth to their son, Quintus. He would prove to be a talented child. Horatius could afford to send the boy not only to the best school in Venusia but then to a better school in Rome and, finally, to university in Athens, where he shared classes with the son of Cicero, no less. Quintus would live to become Rome’s most polished poet: Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known as Horace.

In the end it would all work out for Horatius’s family but for one moment in 71 BC he held his breath. Or so we might imagine: Horatius, the poet Horace’s father, is a real historical figure but his situation as Spartacus approached Venusia is an educated guess. For that matter, Spartacus’s approach is itself a deduction from sources that are too sketchy and contradictory to permit certainty about the last phase of the war. In any case, it seems that Spartacus turned south and away from Venusia. He led his army down the valley of the Upper Silarus River towards the Romans’ camp - again, a plausible itinerary but not certain. What is clear is that, as one source says: ‘he gave up on all [his other plans] and came to blows with Crassus.’ Why?

The ancient sources disagree about Spartacus’s motivation. One says that his men forced him to fight the Romans, while the other says that he made the choice on his own. Was it the mutiny or the bad news from Brundisium? Historically, only one possibility can be right but the contradiction may reflect Spartacus’s own mixed motives. The Roman in Spartacus knew that the odds of battle were against him. As a Thracian chieftain, though, he embraced a fight to the death for freedom.

Meanwhile, Crassus was a moving target. As soon as he got the news of Spartacus’s approach, Crassus went on the march himself. He was eager to fight. Like many of the rebels, Crassus wanted to force a confrontation before Pompey arrived but he marched as much on political as on military grounds. Crassus wanted the credit for victory.

Naturally, Crassus wanted to win. He had grounds for optimism. Since taking command in the autumn, Crassus had improved the odds considerably in Rome’s favour. He had inflicted repeated and considerable battle losses on the enemy (dead, wounded and prisoners) in northern Lucania, on the Melìa Ridge and at Cantenna. In addition, Spartacus had lost the men of the Celtic-German splinter group and perhaps other individual defectors too as the going got rough. At its zenith, Spartacus’s army had consisted of about 60,000 men. It was ‘still of great size’, says one source, but it was surely much diminished. It would be surprising if he had more than 30-40,000 soldiers left, but that is just an educated guess.

The Romans seem to have done better. Crassus had suffered some losses among his 45,000 or so legionaries on the Melìa Ridge and in the engagement ‘towards the Peteline Mountains’. After the end of the rebellion, the Romans liberated 3,000 Roman citizens held prisoner by the rebels; how many of them were soldiers is not known. At a reasonable estimate, Crassus now had 40,000 legionaries. In other words, the Romans matched the rebel army in size and may have outnumbered it.

That did not bode well for Spartacus’s men. The Romans were used to taking on larger armies and beating the odds through their superior training and leadership (especially at the centurion level). They had better arms and armour than the enemy and were surely better fed. They knew that reinforcements were on the way and from two directions but they were cocky enough to take on the enemy on their own.

The rebels could count. They cared little about expectations, however, because they didn’t want an ordinary battle; they wanted a grudge fight. They wanted to avenge their fallen friends. They wanted to achieve the hero’s death that Thracians, Celts and Germans had all been raised to desire. They wanted to kill Romans because rebel slaves knew what awaited them if captured. A group of Sicilian slaves in the Second Sicilian Slave War (104- 100 BC), for example, chose suicide over surrender; another group killed each other in captivity, according to some sources, rather than let the Romans send them to the lions. Spartacus’s men might have reasoned that if the coming battle was to be a slaves’ Thermopylae, then so be it.

It was 71 BC, probably April. As the rebels marched southwards through the Upper Silarus Valley, the Romans marched northwards. There was symmetry to the location. Spartacus’s first clash with a Roman army had taken place on Vesuvius, the most fatal volcanic region in Italy. Now, on a plausible interpretation of the evidence, the last act would unfold in one of Italy’s most dangerous earthquake zones, the valley of the Upper Silarus. In AD 79 Vesuvius erupted and destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. In 1980 an earthquake centred on Conza (ancient Compsa, a city near the Appian Way), killed 3,000 people, injured more than 10,000, and left 300,000 homeless.

The Silarus begins almost unnoticeably in the north, winding through a maze of hills. Then the river flows southwards for 20 miles following a regular course, guarded on either side by mountain walls as high as 5,000 feet. The Picentini Mountains rise in rocky highlands to the west, while the massifs of Mount Marzano and Ogna (modern names) wall off the eastern side of the valley. The space between the mountains is nowhere wider than about 3 miles. Much of the valley is hilly; the widest stretch of plain is about 2 miles wide. The valley ends dramatically in the south, where the curtain wall of mountains stops abruptly at the plain, leaving the Silarus to flow towards the sea over its middle and lower courses. Looking back towards the Upper Silarus from the plain, the mountains seem to retreat gracefully from each other at the valley’s entrance, only to throw up a rock wall again where the river turns.

Green and well watered, the valley’s air is fresh but humid, and clouds are not uncommon. It might look as much like Upstate New York or Quebec as the Mediterranean if not for the many groves of olive trees. No doubt slaves tended them in Roman times. Entering the valley from the plain, past the hot springs of Contursi Terme (modern name), the odour of sulphur is unmistakable. About 10 miles to the north sits the town of Oliveto Citra (modern name), on a hill overlooking the river.

Oliveto Citra claims the honour of being the site of Spartacus’s last battle. So does the town of Giungano (modern name), 50 miles away in the hills near Paestum. Neither claim can be verified, but Giungano can be ruled out, since in fact Giungano was probably the site of a different battle, the one in which Crassus defeated Castus and Cannicus. Oliveto Citra lies south-west of a plain that stretches for about 2 miles and which would indeed have made a good battlefield. Each side might have seen advantages in the relatively narrow space: the numerically superior Romans could not outflank the rebels, while Spartacus’s cavalry had only limited space to manoeuvre. If ancient conditions were like today’s, the valley contained olive trees and deep-ploughed soil. But in the west, the pockmarked cliffs of the Picentini Mountains mark deep gorges, while on the east, the long ridge of the Ogna massif stands guard. A Roman breastplate was once found in these fields. Still, one breastplate does not a battlefield make: safer to say that the battle probably took place somewhere in the valley of the Upper Silarus.

When his scouts located the rebels, wherever that was, Crassus marched up to them and pitched his camp close by. It was a provocative act, an expression of his eagerness to fight. It was also risky. When the sources criticize Crassus for moving too quickly in his zeal to beat Pompey, they may have been referring to this moment.

‘He [Crassus] was digging a trench,’ say the sources, ‘when the slaves sallied forth and started fighting with the workers.’ This might mean a trench around the Romans’ camp, but more likely it is a reference to a ditch or ditches dug to keep Spartacus’s cavalry from outflanking the legions, just as Sulla had done at the Battle of Orchomenus in Greece in 85 BC. As the Roman general Corbulo would later say, ‘you defeat the enemy with a pickaxe.’ Crassus’s men might also have been building strongholds at the end of the trench for the emplacement of light and mobile catapults known as scorpions. Caesar used this tactic fifteen years later in his invasion of Gaul. Scorpions fired bolts that delivered a vicious sting, as the name of the machine suggests. We know of a case in which a scorpion bolt pierced a cavalry commander’s body and pinned him to his horse.

The rebels attacked the trenches. The Romans whom Spartacus had faced in the first two years of the revolt might have turned and run towards safer ground. Crassus’s men stayed and fought. More Romans arrived, and then more slaves, and now it was a mêlée.

Nothing suggests that either general joined the fray at the trench. Sulla’s veterans might have thought back to their chief’s behaviour at Orchomenus when Mithridates’ men attacked his ditch-diggers. Seeing his soldiers flee, Sulla had jumped down from his horse, grabbed a standard, run through the crowd of deserters towards the enemy, and shouted words of abuse. He, for one, planned to die with honour; they could later declare, when asked where they betrayed their leader, ‘At Orchomenus!’ He turned the men around and, after furious fighting, saved the day.

The situation was different at the Silarus. Plutarch, who tells the tale, makes it sound as if Spartacus’s men attacked the ditch-diggers on their own initiative and so forced their leader’s hand. ‘Seeing the necessity,’ Plutarch writes of what happened next, ‘Spartacus arranged his entire army in battle formation.’ But it is just as likely that Spartacus had sent his men out deliberately. A veteran like Spartacus should have foreseen Crassus’s trenches and their threat to the rebel cavalry. A successful flank attack by the rebel cavalry could break up Rome’s light infantry, whose job it was to send a steady stream of slings and arrows against the enemy. A cavalry ride surely played a role in Spartacus’s battle plan - and he is likely to have had a battle plan. He may not have wanted to fight at first but once he realized the inevitability of battle, Spartacus would have set his mind to work. A man like him did not let events hold him prisoner. He would probably have held a council of war and hammered out plans with his lieutenants.

Spartacus might have hoped to squeeze out a victory by first disrupting the Roman formations with his cavalry. A successful offensive by horsemen could deprive the Romans of their missile capability. Then his infantry would attack. Instead of a howling, hell-for-leather charge, Spartacus would try to decapitate the enemy by killing its leadership.

Crassus too surely had a battle plan. Apparently, he intended to neutralize the enemy cavalry and thereby ensure the freedom of his light infantry to rain missiles on the rebels. Light javelins, sling-shot missiles, scorpion bolts and arrows - perhaps even fire arrows - were the likeliest projectiles. Meanwhile, his legions would beat back an anticipated charge by the enemy. Then they would counter with a much more disciplined and formidable charge of their own, and thereby win the battle.

The two generals now prepared their armies for battle. This was a long process, more a matter of hours than of minutes. On the Roman side, the military tribunes carefully supervised the exit of the troops from camp and their deployment in the field. In the absence of other evidence, we might imagine that the legions were drawn up in the standard triple-line pattern. The rear line would serve as reinforcements, if needed. On the rebel side, preparations are likely to have been less regimented. Nonetheless, Spartacus’s lieutenants probably kept things on a tighter rein than the Romans would have wished. It would not be surprising if the lines each extended for about a mile.

In the rebels’ front there probably stood veteran troops who knew how to keep calm in battle. The Romans’ weapons might have gleamed with spit and polish. After all, only at the eleventh hour did legionaries remove their shields from protective covers. The rebels’ arms and armour were probably duller and far less uniform in quality. But many of the pieces recalled the Romans from whose corpses they had been stripped. Likewise, the rebels’ standards, hoisted under the Italian sun, had travelled a path of victory from Vesuvius to Mutina to Bruttium.

Before the fight began, each commander addressed his troops or at least the portion of them within earshot. Crassus’s words do not survive. Spartacus engaged in a bold gesture. After calling for his horse to be brought to him, he drew out his sword and addressed his soldiers. According to Plutarch, he said ‘that if he won he would have many horses, and good ones, from the enemy, but if he lost, he would not need any’. Then he slaughtered the animal.

Now and then an ancient general sent away his horse and fought on foot, in order to encourage the men. But Spartacus took a further step and engaged in a religious ritual, the solemn gesture of a man facing death. Spartacus’s gesture stood out for its drama but not for its pursuit of the sacred: every ancient people considered war a religious act and consulted the gods before battle. The Romans, for instance, brought chickens along with them on military campaigns; they considered these birds sacred. They fed the birds before battle and took it as a favourable sign if the chickens ate with gusto and let food drop from their beaks. Celtic armies consulted priests and bards before battle. We can assume that Spartacus’s army always carried out pre-battle rituals but no details survive except in one case, the Battle of the Silarus.

Thracians, like many ancient peoples, including Celts and Germans, regarded the horse as sacred. An incident from one of Rome’s various wars in Thrace echoes Spartacus’s act. Around 29 BC a Roman army of invasion stood poised to fight a battle with a Thracian tribe, the Moesians. At the last moment, the Moesian commander stood before his battle line and sacrificed a horse. Then he vowed to slaughter the Roman leaders as human sacrifices - and to eat their intestines. Spartacus apparently left Crassus’ s viscera out of it.

By killing the horse - his own mount, no less - Spartacus made a vow in the hope of victory. He also made policy decisions about tactics and morale. Generals normally fought on horseback. By killing his horse, Spartacus might have improved the men’s morale but at the price of limiting the general’s vision and mobility. Without his horse, Spartacus could not change plans once the fighting began nor flee if things went badly. But the men may have seen only his courage and generosity. Perhaps they responded, as Thracians usually did before battle, by singing and dancing in sight of the enemy; perhaps the Celts among them redoubled the taunts they customarily levelled at the enemy. On either side, commanders signalled; banners waved; trumpets blared. Then they fought.

Two armies collided at the Silarus and so did two worlds. It was a clash of military science and heroic ideals, precisely the sort of battle to give birth to legends. What few details have survived are in large part melodramatic; the sceptical reader might choose to dismiss them altogether. Yet the story is more unusual than implausible. Besides, several authentic details of Roman combat can be culled from the sources.

When the signal for battle was given, we might expect that each side’s infantry attacked. The rebels are likely to have cheered and charged. The Romans had been trained to advance slowly. They would have come to within about 50 feet of the enemy and thrown their javelins. Then they would have drawn their swords and charged. The legionaries would have raised a shout, meant as much to encourage themselves as to terrify the enemy.

All this is speculation, and it leaves out key points. Roman battles were complex affairs; commanders sent in cavalry, called for reserves, wheeled their men around, retreated and re-formed their lines, looked for gaps in the enemy’s position - all at the proper times. Too little is known about this engagement even to guess about these details. The Silarus was an epic fight, involving 60,000 men or more, but the ancient world cared mainly about what Spartacus did that day. How could it not, when he turned the battle into a duel? Spartacus’s strategy was to target Crassus. ‘He pushed towards Crassus,’ writes one source, ‘through many weapons and wounds.’

Crassus probably sat on horseback close to his army’s front line, the usual position of a Roman general in battle. From here he observed, exhorted and commanded. He was close enough to the fighting to inspire his men, call for reserves, or make mental notes for future reference. Not for Crassus the safety of the rear: he ‘exposed his body to danger’, says one source. But Spartacus ran an even greater risk because he stood in the front line itself and he fought on foot.

For a general to stand in the front line was rare but not unheard of. Hannibal, for instance, stood in the front rank at Cannae in 216 BC and both Caesar and Catiline would each do so at times in the decades following Spartacus’s revolt. But what was indeed rare in ancient warfare was to turn a clash among tens of thousands of men into a contest between two generals. Spartacus embodied a throwback to the old Thracian ideal of one man with a sword.

But not just Thracians. By singling out the enemy general, Spartacus acted like a Roman seeking Rome’s highest military honour. Called the spolia opima (‘splendid spoils’), this distinction went just to one historically attested Roman in the entire history of the Republic. Marcus Claudius Marcellus won this prize from a Gallic chieftain in 222 BC. More recently, at some point between 79 and 76 BC in Spain, the renegade Roman commander Sertorius had challenged the proconsul Metellus to a battlefield duel; Metellus declined. Sertorius, however, did not then charge Metellus’s army with his loyal retainers, as Spartacus did with Crassus.

Attacking Crassus was brave and foolhardy. Penetrating the enemy line was always dangerous, and more so since the Romans would fight tooth and nail to protect their commander. No doubt Spartacus had a retinue around him, perhaps a bodyguard of picked men, but to protect Crassus the legionaries would swarm them and eventually break through. Spartacus had to gamble on speed: to kill Crassus quickly before the Romans killed him, and then to hope that the legion crumbled at the news of its general’s death. It was a desperate move but arguably a good one under the circumstances. Attacking Crassus risked death; charging an entire legion assured it.

Spartacus’s charge is one of the unforgettable events of ancient warfare. It was a real-life aristeia, to use a Greek word, borrowed by the Romans. Aristeia is an epic story of a warrior’s heroic deeds. The Romans marvelled at his courage. Spartacus ‘fought fortissime’, writes one author, that is, ‘with the height of personal bravery’. As he battled towards Crassus, ‘he killed two centurions who fought hand to hand with him.’ Centurions always led from the front and held their ground: ‘they shall not pass’ might have been their motto. As much as any legionary, they knew how to fight at close quarters. While protecting himself with his large, rectangular shield, a centurion’s practised eye could find a target for his sword in the enemy’s head or torso. But centurions were not trained to face a gladiator.

Spartacus never reached Crassus. Two different versions of Spartacus’s fate survive. ‘In the end,’ according to one account, ‘when those around him had fled, he stood his ground, surrounded by many, and although he defended himself, he was cut down.’ The second report says: ‘Spartacus was wounded in the thigh by a short javelin. He got down on one knee, thrust his shield before him and continued to fight off those who were attacking him, until he himself and the large number of men around him were surrounded and fell.’

The differences are clear. One story says that Spartacus’s friends abandoned him, while the other has them fight and die with him. One report mentions a javelin wound in the thigh, which forces Spartacus to his knee, while the other report says nothing of wounds or kneeling. The little javelin (doration in the Greek text, so iaculum or telum in Latin) is just the sort of weapon to have been thrown by Rome’s light infantry. Spartacus’s men had tried to stop the Romans from digging an anti-cavalry trench. Apparently the Roman pickaxe had prevailed, which held back the enemy horse and allowed a Roman light infantryman to do what Roman centurions could not: to bring down Spartacus. How demeaning for a gladiator not to fall in hand-to-hand combat.

It is impossible to choose between the two versions, so we have to settle for the common details: Spartacus was surrounded, he defended himself, and he died fighting.

For all their fear and loathing of gladiators and rebel slaves, Roman writers stood in awe of Spartacus’s courage that day. The historian Sallust (86-35 BC, first sounded this note by commenting that ‘he did not die quickly or unavenged.’ Florus (c. AD 100-150) paid Spartacus the compliment of saying that ‘he died almost an imperator.’ In Latin, imperator means ‘commander’ but it was a special title of honour, symbolizing the bond between a winning general and his men. After a victory, his soldiers saluted the winner as imperator. Sulla, Pompey, Caesar and Augustus all made great use of the term. By Florus’s day, imperator was the generic title for ‘emperor’. In short, nothing became Spartacus’s life so well as his manner of losing it.

Compared to Spartacus, the tens of thousands of other soldiers on the field receive scant attention from the sources. It is clear that they fought hard and long. ‘The battle was long and strongly contested because of the desperation of so many myriads of men,’ says one source.

Battle inspired, terrified and disoriented its participants. Always loud, the sound of battle echoed between the hills, leaving men uncertain about the location of a given action. Commanders might have had to guess the course of action by watching dust clouds raised by charging troops.

One source uses a metaphor from the arena to characterize the rebels’ fighting spirit: ‘As befit an army led by a gladiator, the battle was fought sine missione - to the death.’ Sine missione is a technical term for a bout in which the producer denies a defeated gladiator the chance to live. The Romans knew that no opponent was more dangerous than one who cannot live but can still kill.

By killing Spartacus the Romans had turned the tables on his strategy. They apparently inflicted the psychological shock on his men that Spartacus had hoped to inflict on the Romans. After he was killed, the rest of his army fell into disorder. The loss of cohesion is fatal in pitched battle. The legionaries, we can imagine, now pushed and chopped their way into the rebels’ lines, opening up pockets here, there and everywhere. The bravest of the rebels would have stayed and fought but many would have run - if they still could. ‘They were cut down en masse,’ says one source. Another puts it more admiringly: ‘They met with a death worthy of real men.’

They may have owed their courage in part to their women, who likely stood in the rear ranks. The Triballi, a tough Thracian people, are said to have stationed women there during one battle. They rallied any wavering men with cries and taunts. It was deserved humiliation, but at least the women did not kill them, as Cimbri women are said to have done under similar circumstances.

By the battle’s end, the Romans had crushed Spartacus’s army. They paid a price for victory: the rebels, it is estimated, had killed about 1,000 Roman soldiers. At about 2.5 per cent of Crassus’s troops, that amounted to what was probably a lower-than-average death rate for the winning side in a Roman infantry battle (based on the limited surviving evidence). The Romans caused massive carnage in turn.

One source claims 60,000 rebel dead, but that is preposterous. A more honest assessment of rebel casualties concludes that ‘a slaughter of them came about that cannot be counted.’ Still, thinking out loud is permissible. Lopsided casualty ratios were not unusual in ancient battles; soldiers who broke and ran were at the mercy of those in pursuit. We know of cases in Roman history in which the defeated army is said to have seen more than half of its men killed or taken prisoner. If there is an element of exaggeration in those figures, there is also the fact that victorious cavalry could ride down an enemy in flight, and infantrymen could encircle their foes and cut them to pieces. If the victorious Romans suffered a death toll of 2.5 per cent, it is possible that the defeated rebels suffered several times as many deaths: it is not difficult to imagine 5,000 to 10,000 deaths out of 30-40,000 rebel soldiers.

Indeed, the sheer number of slippery corpses and scattered weapons might have slowed down the Romans’ pursuit of their broken foe. Bodies might have been piled up two or three high, and even the air might have seemed to be thick with blood. A large number of rebels managed to flee into the nearby mountains. We might assume that any man who could took women and children with him, rather than leave them to the Romans. Crassus had to engage in extensive mopping-up operations after winning the battle. The shock waves spread even further, as survivors took the fight both north and south.

Contrary to myth, Spartacus was not crucified. Crassus could never have asked the question that led to the chorus shouting, ‘I am Spartacus!’ That response is a brilliant Hollywood touch - but it is entirely fictional.

Spartacus died in battle and his corpse was never found. This may seem hard to imagine in the case of so famous a man: surely, someone recognized him. But the slave commander might have worn ordinary armour: finery would not have suited a man who outlawed gold and silver, divided loot equally, and killed his own horse. Spartacus’s final struggle might have left only the badly disfigured body of a soldier dressed in ordinary armour. Then the tide of battle flowed over it, no doubt rendering it unrecognizable in the end. Crassus was denied the chance to decorate a trophy with the arms and armour of his rival.

Spartacus had failed. He had freed tens of thousands of slaves and built them into an army that even some free people joined. He had upended much of the southern Italian countryside. Conquering legion after legion, he had taxed Rome’s resources for more than two years. But in the end, Spartacus went down the same path of catastrophe as Hannibal and, in later years, Cleopatra. Spartacus’s defeat was both a failure of the intellect and of the imagination. Any thoughtful analyst would have reached the conclusion that, sooner or later, the Roman army would crush the insurgency in Italy. Most of the insurgents, however, could not imagine a safe and happy life over the Alps in a strange country. Spartacus built an army that was bold enough to win if it would only quit while it was ahead, but not wise enough to see this.

Whether Spartacus’ s leadership failed is a difficult question. He did not fail on the battlefield, where he excelled as a commander, as long as he maintained limited goals. Nor did he fail in training or inspiring the troops. Spartacus did not attempt to abolish slavery altogether nor did he make a serious effort to conquer the city of Rome, but he offered grand ideals nonetheless. He gave his followers realistic but noble goals: freedom, equality, honour, prowess, vengeance, loot and even the favour of the gods. But not even Dionysus’s favourite could convince them of his ultimate strategic goal: Spartacus failed to persuade his men to cross the Alps. It is doubtful that anyone could have persuaded them. Desperate men are easy to inspire but difficult to reassure. After proving to his army that the gods had turned against Rome and its legions, he could not convince them that disaster lay around the corner unless they fled Italy.

Spartacus suffered the common fate of prudent revolutionaries: he lit a fire that he could not put out. He discovered as well that the very vigour that makes insurgent armies successful makes them fragile. Rebel forces, built from scratch, are notoriously volatile and wilful. Spartacus’s army suffered from massive internal divisions between Italian-born and emigrants and, especially, from divisions among different ethnic and national groups. The mix of Thracians, Celts, Germans and Italians was unstable, yet it was all there was. Spartacus had no choice but to fight with the men he had.

Given those limitations, Spartacus acted well when Crassus brought on the inevitable crisis. It was prudent and proper for him to cross into Sicily. Spartacus cannot be blamed for being double-crossed by the pirates, especially if they were bribed and bullied by the Roman governor of Sicily, Verres. Did Spartacus botch the crossing by raft or was it beyond the technical capabilities of all but the best-supplied forces?

Spartacus was a failure against Rome but a success as a myth-maker. No doubt he would have preferred the opposite, but history has its way with us all. Who, today, remembers Crassus? Pompey? Even Cicero is not so well remembered. Everyone has heard of Spartacus.

Strangely enough, though, they often remember the wrong man. Neither firebrand nor idealist, the real Spartacus wanted to mix hope and prudence. Ultimately, one suspects, he would have been happy to carve out a small space free of Rome and retire as a king or lord in a corner of Thrace. But history taught him a hard lesson: unlike games in the arena, revolutions spill out of control.

Meanwhile, thousands of corpses lay back near the Silarus River. We can make educated guesses as to their fate. The bodies of officers might be transported back to Rome. For ordinary Roman soldiers, it was standard practice to be cremated on the battlefield, where their ashes would be buried in a mass grave. The corpses generated a thick cloud of smoke as the flames consumed them and filled the valley with a sickly-sweet smell. Before the pyre was lit, the legions would give their fallen comrades a final salute, marching around the pyre in full armour to the blare of trumpets, and it is possible that arms and armour were tossed into the flames. Numerous animal sacrifices ended the ceremony.

The rebels probably did not receive similar treatment. Wood was too expensive to waste on them, so their corpses were likely to have been dumped into a mass grave. The body that had been Spartacus probably ended up in an anonymous mound of flesh in a trench covered with dirt.

Somewhere between the headwaters of the Silarus and the spot where the river breaks out of the mountains into the plain, somewhere along the ancient highway between Italy’s two seas, somewhere between the road to Cannae and the beaches where the Allies would land one day, Spartacus was laid to rest.

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